You're sipping a margarita poolside and delightful smells surround you: burgers on the grill, coconut-y sunscreen, freshly mowed grass, and, of course, plastic pool toys. What's not to love about animals and food items that double as rafts or floating beer pong tables? There was even someone on My Strange Addiction who was in a relationship with 15 of them at once. Be careful, though: That plastic-y scent you associate with summer may be coming from hazardous substances.
German researchers say in a new study that the source of the synthetic-yet-endearing smell often comes from chemical compounds that could be harmful to children's health in high quantities. For the experiment, they analyzed samples from a pair of inflatable swimming armbands, two inner tubes, and a beach ball sourced both in local stores and online. They found that all five toys were made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is found in everything from credit cards to food packaging. The team used high vacuum distillation and solvent extraction to isolate the odors and then determined the main "odorants." They found between 32 and 46 smells per sample; and as many as 13 of these were notably strong.
They identified the compounds behind the majority of the smells, and among them were phenol, isophorone, and cyclohexanone. The authors say that phenol is toxic, and some even suspect that it has mutagenic potential—aka it can mutate your genes, which can lead to health problems like cancer. Isophorone is a possible carcinogen, which is to say it can maybe cause cancer. And, finally, cyclohexanone can be bad for you if you breathe it in, which is precisely what you're doing when you're smelling it.
The study also involved a group of trained volunteers who attributed common odor characteristics to the toys after smelling them. They then ranked each odor's intensity and guessed whether or not the odors themselves could be harmful. According to the smell-testers, three of the products were reminiscent of rubber, plastic, and almonds. A fourth product made them think of nail polish and glue; this one was also the most pungent.
Lead author Christoph Wiedmer of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV said in a press release that it's hard to tell which toys do and don't contain harmful and unwanted substances and we don't fully understand the negatives effects they could have on people. "However, we found that in a number of cases our noses can guide us to 'sniff out' problematic products," he explained. Potentially problematic, that is.
Next time you flop on a swan or pizza float, just know that you're resting on a bed of air...and chemicals.
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